In 1993, HBO approached filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to document a story of three murdered eight-year-old boys and the three teens accused of murdering them in Arkansas.
Going into the project believing they would be filming the trial of three guilty teens, Berlinger and Sinofsky instead came away believing the three teens – Jessie Misskelly, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols – were innocent.
What followed was their 1996 HBO doc Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which saw Misskelly and Baldwin sentenced to life imprisonment without parole and Echols sentenced to death.
Four years later, the sequel Paradise Lost 2: Revelations continued the story of the imprisoned trio, known as the West Memphis Three, while the final installment, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory triumphantly emerged as the trio were released 18 years later. Misskelly, Baldwin and Echols agreed to an Alford Plea – where the defendants accept that the prosecution has enough evidence to secure a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, while still asserting their innocence – in August 2011.
Paradise Lost 3 is currently up for best documentary feature at the Academy Awards, and ahead of the ceremony, Berlinger and Sinofsky spoke to realscreen separately to discuss the challenges of their 18-year quest to see the West Memphis Three freed from jail, and what lies ahead for the filmmakers, including a Paul Simon doc from Berlinger, and retirement in France for Sinofsky.
Why do you think the first Paradise Lost film struck a chord with people?
Bruce Sinofsky: I think what came to the top for people is that maybe these guys didn’t get a fair trial and maybe there was a miscarriage of justice. Plus it was a great look into the justice system, especially “poor man’s justice” because the three defendants didn’t really have the best lawyers and didn’t have money to get expert witnesses in. It’s a sad case and I think people could relate to the victims as well as the defendants.
Why did you and Joe continue to tell that story?
BS: When we were at the airport after Damien and Jason’s trial we both said we’ve got to continue with this. At that point we felt very strongly that they were not guilty and that if there was to be more filming done we would do it, but also on a very personal level we wanted to continue helping these guys and do anything we could do to get them out. I didn’t think it was going to take 18 years but that was a proud moment for both of us, that we helped in getting three innocent men out of jail. How often do you do that?
What did you expect going into this third film?
Joe Berlinger: Obviously we had no idea when we started Paradise Lost 3 that the Alford Plea [would happen] – that whole thing went down in a matter of weeks. It was proposed, negotiated and boom, they got out of prison. On August 16 we were in our final days of sound mixing and color correct for the finished film that was premiering at [the Toronto International Film Festival] when we got the call saying: ‘It’s as big as it gets.’ We presumed they were getting out of prison. We dropped everything, rushed down to Arkansas, and filmed them getting out.
For the first time this latest film is coupled with the fact that they’re out of prison so I can fully enjoy the nice reception. In the years past there has always been this tremendous guilt associated with being patted on the back for a good film because the real-life situation was far from resolved. That sense of obligation drove us to make the second and third films to continue to shine a light until there was some resolution.
The first film did everything a filmmaker would want a film to do: it premiered at Sundance, had a great HBO broadcast, won an Emmy and a Peabody Award. And yet Echols was still on Death Row, the other two were on life without parole, and so it was just a funny feeling going up to a podium to accept an award, knowing that people were still in the same situation. What I’m particularly enjoying with this round is that we’re done – which is a huge emotional relief, because I don’t see myself making a Paradise Lost 4 – but more importantly the film has been so well-received and they’re out of prison, so I can enjoy the buzz and reception fully.
BS: We started to do the third film back in 2005, so I don’t think we knew exactly [how] it was all going to turn out. We decided to do the third film in a more “advocacy” way because we were convinced the three were innocent. Obviously in August of last year when they were released from jail, that was the ultimate for us.
What were some of the challenges in making Paradise Lost 3?
JB: I think the biggest challenge was that, unlike in Paradise Lost one, the appeals process is inherently undramatic. It’s filing papers, things moving at a glacially slow pace. A lot of the players who felt that we had clearly announced our allegiances were not interested in talking to us anymore so a lot of doors were shut.
One of the other challenges is how do you maintain that cinema vérité feeling of the first two films where you have unfolding action and it’s not narrated, even though much of the stuff has already happened in the past. It was kind of a breakthrough when I realized we had kept all of the original news footage, because a lot of that stuff doesn’t exist anymore. When we were struggling in the editing room as to how do you tell this story, we had all of this archival news footage from the period, from 1993 on.
BS: There wasn’t a lot that was going on. It wasn’t like the first film where you had a trial and you were getting to know these people.
Was it difficult to get access by the third film?
BS: We obviously had amazing access in the first film but 16 to 18 years later, the access wasn’t always as great as we would’ve liked it. The reality was that we were the only people other than the local media covering this on a national basis back in ’93 and ’94. Clearly as years went on, not everybody wanted to talk about it and people just said, ‘You know what? We don’t want to talk about it anymore,’ and we were held in abeyance at certain points.
Is there a cinematic thread tying all of the films together?
BS: The director of photography, Bob Richman, shot all three films for us. We shot film a lot and the courtroom situations we shot on tape because it was too expensive otherwise. All of the films are slightly different, with a slightly different approach, but I would say if you watched Paradise Lost one and Paradise Lost 3, there’s a certain sensibility [in both].
What’s your relationship with the three men now?
JB: It’s all very positive. I think I have the strongest relationship with Jason [Baldwin]. Jason has wanted to be a part of the promotion of Paradise Lost 3. Jesse [Misskelly], even though he went to the New York Film Festival, wasn’t comfortable traveling with the film, and Damien is writing his own book and is spending more time focusing on the other documentary, West of Memphis, because he is a creative part of that film.
BS: Jason, we see quite a bit. Since they got out of jail, we’ve been with Jason about 10 different times. Jason will be with us Sunday night and it’s always great to see him, have dinner with him, go for walks while we’re together because it’s something literally a year ago you wouldn’t have thought could possibly happen.
So there probably won’t be a follow-up on the West Memphis Three from you and Joe?
BS: I don’t think so. Maybe we’ll have the urge five years from now to see what’s happened to these guys but right now they should just be living their lives. They don’t need cameras stuck in their face. They’ve been very kind and given us great amounts of time over the years. If they want to see us, let them see us as friends, not as filmmakers. I think they’ve earned that privacy.
What’s your take on the other West Memphis Three films?
JB: I think it’s great. First of all I’m very gratified that so many people have gotten inspired to get involved in the case because of Paradise Lost, including new storytellers. The story is not yet over because the West Memphis Three need to be fully exonerated, which they haven’t been because of the Alford Plea, and the real killer needs to be found so that the parents finally have closure. I think there can’t be enough films about this miscarriage of justice because we don’t want it to happen again, in any state.
BS: I haven’t seen the Amy Berg film [West of Memphis, produced by Peter Jackson]. I don’t want to say the more the merrier because I don’t think they need 8,000 films made about them but if it helps, great, because these guys deserve to be exonerated.
What’s next for you?
JB: We’re starting season six of Iconoclasts for the Sundance Channel and I have a couple other long form projects that are in their infancy but too young to talk about. But I’m trying to launch Under African Skies [a documentary focusing on Paul Simon's Graceland project] this spring.
BS: We’re talking about another season of Iconoclasts for Sundance. I’m also frankly looking towards retiring and moving to our home in France.
How have you prepared for the Oscars?
JB: After we get off the phone I’m going to start packing my bag and get on a plane to LA. The way I’ve prepared for it is I’m trying not to think about it. My wife gave me the very sage advice to not worry about the awards but being part of a group that helped get three guys out of prison is my reward, so that’s what I’ve been trying to focus on.
BS: My mom bought me a tux and a gown for my wife, and we’re taking four of my five children out there and we’re just going to have a great time. I’ve been working in the business for 35 years and this is a great acknowledgement, so it’s kind of like the cherry on the sundae. I’ve been watching the Oscars for 50 years or so, and we’re actually going to be there, so it’s a gas!